Spring bounces back with watercress soup

There’s something unnerving about a summer day in March. The show outside is like a time-lapse movie: buds on fruit trees don’t sweetly emerge in a slow and lady-like fashion, but pop screaming into existence from their branches in contrast to the surrounding dark and barren limbs that didn’t get the memo.

I want nature to behave, to be consistent. I want some outside sign to tell me all is right with the world, because inside I’m at sixes and sevens. (It’s those odd numbers that get you.) I just wrote to a friend telling her I was at a conference with a thousand other people and it felt like a visit to Maggie’s Farm. I’ve come home with a head full of ideas, going from cheerful to discouraged and back again at whiplash pace. In other words, business as usual.

The noise in my head is just the noise in my head. It’s a congenital condition that I must constantly manage. I’m beginning to accept that as I watch my life unfold. In low moments it feels like a B movie, but I’m learning to laugh at myself for that, too. At the conference I reconnected with some wonderful people, and met many more talented and inspiring fellow food writers. The sheer numbers and volume of information were temporarily overwhelming.

Be yourself! Write what you are passionate about! If you’re not Giada or Gwyneth, you can’t write about that! Write what will sell! Be authentic! Get a platform! Be on facebook and twitter! Don’t be on facebook and twitter! (Unless it feels right!) Monetize! Don’t monetize! (Unless if feels right!) Be on the radio! Make t.v. appearances! (As if.) Have a vision! Have a plan!

(Breathe deeply.)

Now that I am home, the weather is cooperating. Chilly April days prolong the blooms, and the spring light is heartbreaking. For once I welcome the cold. It feels right. I know I just have to keep my head down and put one foot in front of the other. At the end of the day, is there any other choice? The warm weather will arrive soon enough and the garden awaits. Meanwhile, I’m making bowls of comforting spring soup.

These are Vidalia spring onions, with bulbs much larger than scallions

Spring watercress soup
Serves 4 (makes 8 cups)

Although you can find it all year long, wild watercress grows from April to November in cool, shallow running water. In our restaurant near Woodstock, New York we gathered watercress from a treasure trove growing at the head of a spring that emerged here and there on its course down the mountain. Watercress duty was a particularly coveted mission—not often could you find a reason to escape the hot kitchen and see the light of a midsummer day to plunder piles of the peppery greens from hand-numbing water.

Many nutritional claims have attached themselves to watercress over the years: it is rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium and folic acid.  According to Francis Cuppage’s book, James Cook and the Conquest of Scurvy, watercress kept the good captain’s sailors healthy with the green. In addition, British author Colin Spencer wrote that the Romans treated insanity with watercress and vinegar. Whether watercress is mind-steadying or not, making the soup is. A classic in the French and British repertoire, it is indeed a spring tonic.

Choose bright green watercress without any yellow leaves or slippery stems, and use within a day or two. Watercress does not stay fresh for very long.

2 bunches watercress
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large spring onion, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups) (not scallions, see photo above)
2 potatoes (1 pound) peeled, halved and thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
5 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
Salt and pepper to taste
Unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche, for garnish
Chives, chopped, for garnish

1. Trim and discard 1 inch of the thick stems from the bottom of each watercress bunch. Rinse well, and cut across the branches to make 3-inch pieces.

2. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook gently for 2 to 3 minutes, or until they are soft but not brown. Add the potatoes, watercress, and stock. Bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to a simmer and add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

3. Fill a blender jar with about half the soup solids and half the liquid. Cover the top of the blender with a folded dishtowel, and start blending on low speed. Increase the speed slowly, and puree until smooth. Pour into a clean pot and repeat with remaining soup. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Reheat before serving. Garnish each bowl with a spoonful of unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche, and sprinkle with chopped chives.


  1. Beautiful, thoughtful and right on target. Still dazzled and dazed by all the input and diversions and company. This soup sounds lovely. I adore watercress. Thais use it in stir-fries and I put it in salads, but have never made a soup. I love your photographs. Wish we could meet for bowls of soup and conversation.

    1. Nancie, Seeing you was a highlight of the whole weekend--and (sigh) wish we could meet for conversation more often! I'm putting one of your Thai stir-fries with watercress on the menu this week while all that input does another round of shaking out. I'll be thinking of you as we dig into one of your wonderful recipes.

  2. Oh I love watercress, delicious.

    You are welcome to join in my food blogger event THE SOUP KITCHEN, here all bloggers are welcome, hope to see you participate soon.

  3. Hi Sally,

    What a fabulous idea! I've never made a soup out of watercress. Nor sure why.

    Does it have a bit of a bitter note? Or does cooking tame that? Was just wondering if my kiddos will go for it. They have surprised me a number of times, so maybe I should stop worrying and give it a go.

    Big hug,

    1. Helen, It has a teensy bit of an edge at the end of a spoonful--mostly mitigated by the potatoes--so it depends on how sensitive they are. On the other hand, more for you--worth a shot. I make the same soup with asparagus (used about 1 1/2 pounds and more stock). I forgot to mention that you could use leeks (classic) or even plain ol' onions in place of the spring onions. Happy spring!

  4. Wonderful post Sally! Pretty photos just look like spring. love your writing too. So good to see you at IACP! Overwhelming is a good word. I've yet to unpack all of my notes and prioritize my "to do" list of what I need to implement. It will come, this week!

    1. Sally, it was great to see you, too. Letting it all sink in. The trick (speaking for myself) is to not get so busy going forward that you don't have time to unpack and read all the notes you took so furiously!

  5. I'm trying to slim (ha!) down for the PMC, but I'm afraid you may cause my resolve to waiver for a night. I'm a sucker for watercress, and anything with cream, crème fraiche, or butter in it. Great pics, as always. Ken

    1. PMC is not until August, right? You could waver, and skip the cream--it's still good :) My guess is you will be riding off the pounds now that the light is giving us so much more time in the evening....

  6. http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/2012/04/watercress-soup

    1. Dear Anonymous, Thank you for posting your link to Bon Appetit's recipe for watercress soup. I had not seen this issue, but would simply like to comment that the soup--a classic in its own right (potage cressonniere)--has many subtle variations that are not dissimilar. I have often made this same soup with asparagus or sorrel or leeks and potatoes, all more or less classics (you can find the recipes in Julia Childs' books, for example.) The chives in the photo are the only green living plants in my garden at this time of year, so I used them for garnish in the photo. All similarities are coincidental, but as I mentioned, this version of watercress soup is a classic. I only hope that readers will try the soup, whether they use the one posted here, or the one in the magazine.

  7. I never make watercress soup before! Thanks for sharing this delicious recipe!! :)